The whales appear to prefer the company of "like-minded" individuals, based on common vocal clicking behavior—an example of culture, researchers say. Christopher Intagliata reports
We humans are social creatures—we stick together. Family traditionally came first. Then more distant relatives. Then larger groups of unrelated individuals, connected by culture. But it turns out the same could be said for sperm whales. "So usually you find the female, and their mom and the grandmas and their aunts, and they all stay together for many years."
Maurício Cantor, a biologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He says those closely related family groups then seek out other families with similar behavior: "They tend to hang out or stay together with those who produce the same kinds of sounds." <<whale clicking sound>> Meaning whale cliques are based on producing similar clicks.
And similarly clicking whales don't just hang out together, he says. They also emulate each other's songs, or codas. Meaning clans of whales evolve their own dialects—their own form of culture. And these dialects are key. Cantor and colleagues built a computer simulation of generation after generation of virtual whales. And they found that no other factor—like genetics or mother-daughter teaching—could explain the emergence of the clans and dialects in real sperm whale society. The study appears in the journal Nature Communications. [Mauricio Cantor et al, Multilevel animal societies can emerge from cultural transmission]
"I'm not trying to say that the types of culture the whale has are the same as human culture. Obviously human culture is much more diverse and complex and cumulative and symbolic. But it's very fascinating just to see that they can have some type of similarities, they can have their own type of culture." And maybe a better understanding of that whale culture, he says, might persuade a few human cultures to be a bit more conservation-minded, when it comes to whales.
[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]
[Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.]